As we ready ourselves for the Memorial Day Weekend, why not take note of a few of the best war movies of all times? You know, just in case the weather fails to cooperate with your plans.
In no particular order, here are twenty of the best military movies to watch over Memorial Day Weekend!
- The Hurt Locker
Between this film and director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, we have the two finest modern-day studies of what it means to fight in today’s confusing war against terrorism. The slightest edge goes to The Hurt Locker, which dives deeply into the process of Iraq-based bomb defusing and the personal detachment that can result from putting oneself in harm’s way on an hourly basis.
- Black Hawk Down
The film takes place in 1993 when the U.S. sent special forces into Somalia to destabilize the government and bring food and humanitarian aid to the starving population. Using Black Hawk helicopters to lower the soldiers onto the ground, an unexpected attack by Somalian forces brings two of the helicopters down immediately. From there, the U.S. soldiers must struggle to regain their balance while enduring heavy gunfire.
- American Sniper
A slow-building and unlikely blockbuster (the biggest film of 86-year-old director Clint Eastwood’s career), this electrifying PTSD war drama became a political football for its questionable handling of the real-life Chris Kyle. But between a nervy performance by Bradley Cooper and some daring ambiguities on the matter of valor, you have a movie that only Eastwood, no simple conservative, could make.
Famously, this was Richard Nixon’s favorite film, a potent counterbalance to the voices of the protesters and a manly pep talk of righteousness. (It wasn’t enough to help the President with his problems.) George C. Scott is magnificent in the title role, railing iconically against “Hun bastards” in his opening monologue before a huge American flag.
- The Steel Helmet
Ex-GI Samuel Fuller brings his rough-and-rugged perspective to this Korean War classic. A ragtag group of soldiers takes refuge from snipers in a Buddhist temple. The longer this respite lasts, the greater the racial and ideological tensions grow. The writer-director’s tabloid-headline style gives the proceedings a charged immediacy that lands with a gut punch.
- Bridge Over River Kwai
Hark! Is that the “Colonel Bogey March” we hear? In David Lean’s rousing WWII epic, American POW William Holden plots a daring escape from a remote Japanese prison, while captured British colonel Alec Guinness and camp commandant Sessue Hayakawa determinedly vie for power. The title bridge figures in one of the most suspenseful action sequences ever filmed.
- The Dirty Dozen
It’s become one of the most beloved “dad movies” of all time—but maybe Father knows best. The murderous “dozen,” conscripted for a suicide mission on the eve of D-Day, includes a shifty-eyed psychopath (John Cassavetes), a religious fanatic and woman-beater (Telly Savalas), and a slow-witted “General” (Donald Sutherland). They get the job done.
- Apocolypse Now
The battles behind Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal war movie are well-documented: the nightmarish, multiyear shoot; star Martin Sheen’s heart attack and recovery; a cackling press corps that sharpened its knives for a turkey of epic proportions. Coppola would have the last laugh. So much of the vocabulary of the modern-day war picture comes from this movie, an operatic Vietnam-set tragedy shaped out of whirring helicopter blades, Wagnerian explosions, purple haze and Joseph Conrad’s colonialist fantasia Heart of Darkness. Fans of the Godfather director, so pivotal to the 1970s, know this to be his last fully realized work; connoisseurs of the war movie see it (correctly) as his second all-out masterpiece.
- Three Kings
Production was reportedly hellish, with director David O. Russell and star George Clooney coming to physical blows. (Guys, it’s a war movie.) But the ultimate payoff was rare: a combat film that achieved political profundity via off-the-wall comedy. Call it the lure of Saddam’s gold.
- Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick’s filmography was devoted to depicting military folly. Elevating Paths of Glory was not its brutal scenes of WWI trench warfare but its scalpel-scarp indictment of the pride that comes with battle. Kirk Douglas’s lawyer-colonel is tasked with mounting a courtroom defense of three innocent soldiers who just happened to be part of a losing skirmish. Based on a real-life episode of French soldiers executed for “cowardice,” Kubrick’s movie so angered France’s government that it couldn’t be screened publicly there until 1975. The film’s lesson is universal and timeless, though: If warfare turns us into monsters even off the battlefield, then we have no purpose waging it.
With the U.S. mired in the seemingly endless horrors of Vietnam, what better time was there for something as biting and hilarious as Robert Altman’s Korean War satire? For the biggest hit of his career, Altman gave audiences the chance to snicker at strife: The narrative follows members of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital—standouts include Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye and Elliott Gould’s Trapper John—as they make anarchic mischief (usually of the spy-on-the-girl-in-the-showers variety) in between gory operations. No target is sacred; even The Last Supper is recreated with gleeful blasphemy. If you only know the TV show, see where all the high jinks began.
- Casualties of War
No stranger to confrontational cinema, Brian De Palma takes a lurid premise—American soldiers kidnap a Vietnamese village girl to use as a sex slave—and makes a harrowing statement about how easily integrity is discarded in battle. A mortified Michael J. Fox, beautifully cast against type, plays the squad’s lone dissenter.
In the late 1980s, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) enlists as a Marine, training in boot camp under a sadistic drill instructor. Swofford undertakes a sniper course headed by Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx) during this time, which is shortly before the advent of the Gulf War. When the United States becomes involved, Swofford is shipped out, along with his spotter, Alan Troy (Peter Sarsgaard). Facing uncertainty each day — about the war and home — the soldiers try to maintain composure.
- The Deer Hunter
Based on its most notorious scenes—games of Russian roulette, one of them with vicious Vietcong captors—this
actorcentric POW movie (featuring an unhinged Christopher Walken) earns its place on our list. The metaphor is a provocative one: Many saw holding a loaded gun to one’s head as an obvious parallel to the United States’ entrance into the war itself.
- 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
On Sept. 11, 2012, Islamic militants attack the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and Sean Smith, an officer for the Foreign Service. Stationed less than one mile away are members of the Annex Security Team, former soldiers assigned to protect operatives and diplomats in the city. As the assault rages on, the six men engage the combatants in a fierce firefight to save the lives of the remaining Americans.
Following the Battle of Antietam, Col. Robert Gould Shaw is offered command of the United States’ first all-African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. With junior officer Cabot Forbes, Shaw puts together a strong and proud unit, including the escaped slave Trip (Denzel Washington) and the wise gravedigger John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman). At first limited to menial manual tasks, the regiment fights to be placed in the heat of battle.
- Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg’s WWII drama weds an intimate story to the sweep of history—and even if you didn’t care for the fortunes of one lucky soldier, you couldn’t avoid being floored by the movie’s epic mounting of the 1944 Omaha Beach landing. Spattered with gore and mud (and running a harrowing 27 minutes), the sequence has no equal on this list, or anywhere else.
- Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick’s unnerving contribution to Vietnam war movies will gouge out your eyes and skull-fuck you (to quote a line). The first half of this opus, set at the Marines’ Parris Island training facility, is widely lauded: Drill instructor R. Lee Ermey spouts every imaginable expletive (plus some new ones) while putting a group of new recruits through their paces. Yet the less-discussed second half—which follows Matthew Modine’s Pvt. “Joker” and his fellow soldiers through the Tet Offensive—is a necessary complement. This is where we see the end result of turning men into killing machines, and it’s like gazing into the abyss.
- Good Morning, Vietnam
Good Morning Vietnam triumphs because of Williams, ably backed up by Forest Whitaker showing the economical acting skills he would later bring to Bird. Studded with memorable one-liners (“Goooooooood
Morn-ing Viet-naaaaam! This is not a test, this is rock and roll, time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ!!”) and punctuated with great 60s music.
Much of the cult of Oliver Stone rests upon this film, an impassioned and corrective countermyth to the official version of the Vietnam War. Released at a moment when America was finally ready to reexamine its involvement, Stone’s grimy drama—marked by complex motivations among the troops—wrung an emotional catharsis from Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
h/t Time Out